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Chapter Twenty-three: Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Lake Charles

 

It was Saturday, February 21, 2004, and my 63rd birthday. (I think I was born on a Saturday as well.) Now my mother was gone for almost three years and I was here by myself in Louisiana campaigning for President. My father was alive in a New Jersey nursing home.

The day’s first order of business was to buy Mardi Gras beads at a party-favor store. A friend in Minneapolis had told me that everyone who celebrates Mardi Gras needs these. He did not tell me that I might soon have a superabundance of beads from attending the parades. Another Mardi Gras tradition was to have gumbo. I drove to the Party Time store on Airlines Boulevard and waited for the store to open at 9:30 a.m. There I purchased a small bag of beads and a fancier chain with larger beads that cost more.

On the previous day, after my stop in Amite, I had worked the cell phone lining up potential newspaper and television coverage for my Mardi Gras appearances on the weekend. I would be attending the Baton Rouge parade starting at noon and a parade in Lafayette organized by “the Krewe of Bonaparte” starting at 6:30 p.m. It was an hour’s drive between the two cities. I told someone at Baton Rouge station WBRZ-TV that I would be standing at the corner of North and St. Louis wearing a large purple sombrero. The same message went to a man at station WAFB-TV. They said they would be looking for me. I left messages with two or three other Baton Rouge stations and either left messages on the answering machine or received busy signals. I also called the Advocate newspaper. They, too, would be attending the parade.

Regarding Lafayette, I had a booklet listing all the Mardi Gras events in this city. It even showed maps of the parade routes, which made it easy to pick a location. I told persons at stations KADN-TV and KATC-TV that I would be standing at the corner of West Congress and Lafayette streets, again wearing a purple sombrero. I could also be identified by a sign. This was the sign, anchored in a brass stand, which I had prepared for my June 20th campaign announcement last year. It read on one side: “Meet Bill McGaughey, another candidate for President seeking the Democratic nomination.” That would be the side exposed to the television cameras. I also spoke with Jim Bradshaw, an editor of the Daily Advertiser, about my Mardi Gras appearance.

While Mardi Gras would interfere with my daily visits to newspapers, it was not down time so much as a shifting of gears. This was an opportunity to seek free television coverage. Television was the most powerful medium used in political campaigns. The other advantage of Mardi Gras was that it gave me a chance to wear the Mexican hat. This had been a burning question for me ever since I decided to pack the hat in the trunk of my car.

The flamboyant Mexican hat would certainly attract attention, but was it the right kind of attention? There was a chance that it would offend Hispanic voters who felt I was making fun of them. Also, I might come off as a clown wearing this hat; and people don’t vote for clowns. Mardi Gras made it acceptable to wear outlandish costumes of all varieties. For my part, I liked the hat. It liked it as a wild and colorful head adornment which was oddly suiting the grandiose purposes of someone running for President. I was aching for a chance to wear that unique hat, and Mardi Gras gave it to me.

Mardi Gras also forced me to think about where to campaign. I needed to mingle with people in an appropriate place. There were two problems. First, the place to campaign must have a sufficient number of people. Second, it must be an acceptable place for campaigning. It must be a place where the police or security guards will not evict a person for trespassing. Even if legal, it must be a place where people welcome or at least tolerate solicitations by political candidates.

On most big-city streets candidates are allowed to shake hands or pass out literature. The problem is often that not enough people walk by to make the activity worthwhile. On the other hand, congested suburban areas have the people but lack appropriate places to approach them personally. They are designed for the automobile, not pedestrian traffic. I would not be advised to wander the mall parking lots engaging customers in political conversations as they stepped out of their cars. Mardi Gras does bring crowds of people to big-city streets. The problem here is that people are expecting to enjoy the Mardi Gras parades, not to be approached by a political candidate. Maybe this is why media coverage has become so critical to political campaigning. The opportunities for direct personal interaction have dried up.

The crowds were obvious as I drove into the downtown area of Baton Rouge shortly before noon, Saturday, the 21st, and parked my car in a lot off Convention street. I had promised the media to stand at the corner of North and St. Louis. Where was that? I followed the crowds. I had driven by North and St. Louis a week earlier but could not find the place now. I thought it might be closer to the river. Huge crowds filled North Street as I walked toward smaller numbered streets. Where was St. Louis? Finally, I asked a police officer. North and St. Louis was still blocks away, he said. Did the parade go past this intersection? No, it did not.

After I had a chance to look at the map in the car, I realized what had happened. Downtown Baton Rouge has two streets named “North”. One is North Street and one is North Boulevard. They parallel each other five blocks apart. Also, I could not find St. Louis Street because it stops at North Boulevard. North of the boulevard, the same street is called North Third Street. No wonder I could not find the promised intersection as I walked west on North Street. There was no St. Louis Street intersecting here. That’s the problem with old cities like Baton Rouge whose streets were laid out before there were city planners. I should have known.

This meant that my first campaign appearance at Mardi Gras was a bust. All I could do was to find a place to put my sign as the parade went down North Street. I found a big tree near the northeast corner of North and North Sixth Street. Here my sign would not block someone’s view of the parade. I leaned the sign and the stand against the tree. Because of the noise, I then walked behind a house to call the media with information about my new location. No one answered the phones. Maybe it was because I could not hear. I walked back to my position near the tree and waited for the parade to pass by this spot.

The “Spanish Town” Mardi Gras parade in Baton Rouge must have had seventy floats, each colorfully decorated. On each float, a “krewe” would toss Mardi Gras beads and other items off into the crowd. We in the crowd would jump for the beads as they were tossed our way. It was like children jumping for candy. This was not a good environment for political campaigning. Giving up hope of television coverage, I, too, became caught up in the spirit of catching as many beads as possible. By the end of the parade, I had caught at least as many beads tossed from the parade floats as I had bought that morning at the Party Time store.

During lulls in the parade, I talked with some of the other spectators. There was a middle-aged couple from Baton Rouge who had been to this parade many times. The man taught world history in high school. I told him about my book and promised to send him a copy. Many adults were aggressively helping their kids catch beads. The kids were sometimes perched on their shoulders in front of us. There were, however, no news reporters or television crews.

Right after the parade, I drove to Lafayette. It was late in the afternoon. I thought I knew the streets in downtown Lafayette but now found the layout confusing even with a map. Police barricades lined the parade route, adding to my difficulty in finding a parking space not far from West Congress and Lafayette. I parked around the corner from Lee Street, which eventually connected with West Congress. The intersection with Lafayette Street was about eight blocks away. The crowds were not as thick as they had been in Baton Rouge, and it did not take me long to walk the distance. The parade route turned at my particular corner. Mostly African Americans stood in that spot. Early on, two white girls asked if they could take a picture of me in my Mexican hat. My sign was leaning against a lamp post, virtually unnoticed. Then the parade began.

The parade in Lafayette had a greater police presence than the one in Baton Rouge. As individual officers stood in the parade route to control the crowds, teams of police on motorcycles zoomed in circles, doing “high fives” with spectators. There were not as many floats as in the Baton Rouge parade though the Mardi Gras beads were tossed with equal abandon. Toward the end of the parade, a television reporter and cameraman from KATC-TV, Channel 3, unexpectedly appeared. “Are you Bill McGaughey?”, the reporter asked. I was. In this noisy spot, it was hard to hear the questions asked in the ensuing five-minute interview. I did my best to respond. Afterwards, some of the nearby spectators struck up conversations, among them a woman from New Orleans. I asked her what was the best New Orleans Mardi Gras parade. She said, “Endymion”, her own neighborhood’s parade.

Walking back towards my car, I had several offers to buy my Mexican hat. Most were from young white men who had been drinking. I tried to explain in good humor that the hat was not for sale. Loud music was coming from a night club just off the street. I walked in and sat down at the bar. I asked what was a good local beer. “Purple haze” was the bartender’s answer. It was bottled by the Abita Brewing Company of Abita Springs, Louisiana, located in that area north of Lake Pontchartrain.

I struck up a conversation with a young lady seated next to me. Then her friends appeared, and I was ignored for the rest of the evening. Humiliated, I placed a few cell phone calls to people in Minnesota. Then I drove to the Motel 6 in Lafayette, and watched the Channel 3 news, hoping that my interview would be aired. If it was, I missed the segment. I called it a night. That’s how I spent my 63rd birthday.

Sunday morning, the 22nd of February, I thought I might attend the 11 a.m. Mardi Gras parade in Carencro, a suburban neighborhood northwest of Lafayette. My only other plan for that day was to attend the “boat parade” in Lake Charles, starting at 7 p.m. From the Motel 6, I drove west to the next major north-south highway. Already cars were parked on the shoulders of the highway. Groups of people were passing by on foot. With my gear, I, too, started walking. After several hundred yards, I asked someone how far it was to the parade site. Half a mile, at least. At that point, I decided that the event was not worth the trouble. The deciding factor was that the media had not been notified that I would be attending the Carencro event. I would be stuck in a place far from my car. Maybe it would be better to spend the time in Lake Charles. I returned to the car.

North on the same highway, I approached the entrance ramp to I-10 which would take me straight to Lake Charles. A hitchhiker was standing near the ramp. I decided to pick him up. The young man’s name was Michael. He was 35 years old, of French ancestry, and originally from Ville Platte. He had just split up with his girl friend in Lafayette, with whom he had children, and was leaving town for an unknown destination. He just wanted to leave town. Michael said he had not worked since 2000. He had worked for Vulcan Steel in Baton Rouge but he was injured on the job and had been awarded a cash settlement. His girl friend had squandered it. He thought she might have been using cocaine. She always denied it. Their relationship was hopeless. He wanted to move on and start a new life.

Who was the greater desperado, I asked myself, this man or me running for President?

Down the road, I pulled off the interstate to buy Michael a pack of cigarettes. Cheap cigarettes, he said, would be OK. He just needed to smoke. We passed an oil rig at the side of the highway which was like one familiar to him in his younger days. I was going as far as Lake Charles. He said he would accompany me to that city. I could see that Michael was having second thoughts about leaving Lafayette. He asked me about relationships. I’m generally in favor of renewed efforts at communication. I told him that I would attend Mardi Gras activities in Lake Charles for several hours and then be returning on the same highway to Baton Rouge. If he changed his mind about leaving, he was welcome to ride back with me to Lafayette.

Michael and I hung out together for several hours in Lake Charles. We went to the Tourist Information office and looked at the alligators. He knew how to catch them in the wild. Their meat was delicious. Michael said he thought Britney Spears had grown up in the Jennings area which we had passed that afternoon on the highway. We had coffee and a bite to eat along the route of the children’s Mardi Gras parade. This was an event which featured children tossing beads to us adults. Having parked, I found another parking spot closer to the Civic Center. I thought I might repark the car here.

About that time, Michael decided that he wanted to return to Lafayette. There was still more than an hour before the boat parade began and he was getting restless. I therefore drove Michael to the entrance ramp of I-10. He planned to hitchhike back home. I promised to look for him when I came that way several hours later in case he had failed to catch a ride.

Now by myself, I reparked the car and had a light meal at Wendy’s. The period following the children’s parade was, in fact, quite productive, although no television crews or newspaper reporters appeared. I talked with a number of people in the parking lot while passing out literature. Most were interested in my campaign for President. Most agreed with me on employment and were receptive to my proposals on trade. There were, however, a few Republicans who could not be swayed, I must admit.

There were also some who were concerned about immigration or the war in Iraq. Promptly at 7 p.m., lighted boats began cruising past spectators who stood along the rail of the board walk. Like other Mardi Gras parades, this one included tossing of beads. Standing along the dimly lit harbor, we caught what we could. The parade lasted perhaps 20 minutes. Then the line of boats headed out into the lake for another pass. I decided to leave.

In retrospect, I should have remained for the second passage of boats in case news reporters from Lake Charles were looking for me. After all, the television crew in Lafayette had found me after the parade. But I was tired and did not think clearly. I had a long drive ahead of me that evening before I reached Port Allen. Michael must have found a ride for I did not see him anywhere along the highway. It was shortly before 10:00 p.m. when I checked in at the Motel 6. These Mardi Gras events had been impressive but the big ones would come in New Orleans during the next two days.

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